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Helping the planet breathe

Helping the planet breathe

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

If we are to improve world health, we must help the world breathe more easily. 

The big five of respiratory disease – COPD, asthma, acute lower respiratory tract infection, tuberculosis and lung cancer – affect more than 1 billion people worldwide. In fact, there are almost a billion cases and millions of deaths annually from influenza alone.

While heart disease is the world’s biggest killer, up to a quarter of heart attacks and strokes may be precipitated by respiratory infection. 

The worldwide impact of respiratory illness in terms of mortality, morbidity and economic cost is enormous. The potential health impact of doing better is enormous. And there is real potential to do better on World Health Day and beyond.

More than 80 percent of deaths from COPD (the third leading cause of death worldwide) occur in low- and middle-income countries. The causes are well-known and preventable: household pollution from burning coal and other biomass fuels; occupational dust, fumes and chemicals; and smoking. 

Almost half a million people die from asthma each year even though, with medications that were developed many years ago, most of these deaths should be preventable. 

Influenza affects more people each year than any other disease or infection with an unrivalled ability to multiply and mutate. For years we have had influenza vaccines, but their efficacy has been limited to between 40 and 60 percent.

Research investment in lung cancer lags despite it accounting for almost one in four cancer deaths.

And tuberculosis, which had been virtually eliminated in Australia, Western Europe and North America, continues to kill millions in the developing world.

Lessons from COVID

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic gives cause for hope. Cases of influenza and pneumonia dropped to unprecedented levels with the public health measures brought into force.

The pandemic response proves we can address and mitigate the effects of respiratory disease. The speed of COVID vaccine development and its efficacy, advancements in mRNA technology, rapid diagnostics, boosting immune response via the microbiome and more research into anti-viral agents are all recent developments and potential game changers. 

Helping the world breathe better

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research is the world’s leading respiratory and sleep research organisation. Our researchers are at the forefront of their fields – innovating, investigating, conducting clinical studies and trials, and searching for answers every day.

We're leading the way with ground-breaking research.

  • In our Centre for Lung Cancer Research, we are exploring the lung’s microbiome, how it interacts with the immune system and how this may affect responses to immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
  • Recently published research by our Sleep Group confirmed, for the first time, that sleep-disordered breathing affects brain function.
  • We have developed a new treatment strategy for mild asthma that has been adopted in more than 30 countries worldwide.
  • We are working on ways to deliver mRNA vaccines via a nasal spray to make them more available worldwide.
  •  Our epidemiologists are applying their experience with tuberculosis in Vietnam to formulate strategies to eliminate COVID-19. 

The work we are doing is making a difference.

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